ROBERT JAMES ON MEN’S FASHION AND BUILDING A BRAND
Robert James is the real deal: tall and good-looking with a direct manner. He is inspired by music, vintage items, the middle nineteenth century, and his friends. This modern gentleman from Troy, Ohio has leveraged his interest in people, the community, and having a good ol’ time into a brand, By Robert James, dedicated to showing men how to be “simple, honest, handsome.”
It was a gray, rainy August morning, when I arrived at By Robert James’ multi-level shop and design studio on Orchard Street in New York City’s Lower East Village. Walking up to the entrance, I could see him talking on the phone, as he turned on the lights and unlocked the front door. He smiled and gestured for me to come in, welcoming me as if we had been old friends. Once the door opened fully, Lola (the black lab) came over and wagged her tail in greeting.
The shop is a marriage of style aesthetics combining two unlikely decades: 1860’s Wild West and 1960’s Rock and Roll. The tall ceiling, rich wood floors, and large center counter are reminiscent of a general store. Vintage books, personal photographs, and other such memorabilia grace the shelves and walls, highlighting the brand’s impeccable hand-tailored goods. The space, surprisingly large for the East Village, feels rustic and rugged while maintaining a sophisticated relaxed vibe. The ambiance of the shop, flavored with vinyl tunes and James’ warm personality, seems to extend an open invitation to hangout and chill. The shop is completed with a DJ booth on the second floor (spinning tunes on Saturdays) and a custom guitar studio on the third floor.
When I asked what makes a great business owner, Robert James explained that a successful business was not “something the owner decided to do on a whim, rather it was carefully thought out.” This philosophy is the foundation for the By Robert James brand. James was systematic and deliberate, planning and preparing for years before he opened shop. “I knew that I didn’t know anything. That’s one of the things I love about the apparel business – the learning curve is so huge.”
For James, that learning curve started nearly two decades ago. He was a twenty-two year old engineering student at Ohio State. While partying with friends, discussing life dreams and ambitions, he decided he would start his own brand and open an apparel shop by his thirty-fifth birthday. A short time later, while using the engineering design program, AutoCad, he created his first t-shirts. He and his buddies tried to sell them at a college rave but did not seem to connect with their customers and sold nothing. James felt “really kind of dejected” as he started to package up the products until a kid walked up and said, “Oh bro, before you put those away, I really wanted one.” James sold him a single shirt for $10 and put the rest away. While lying in bed that night, James remembered the crippled feelings that came from lack of success but determined he would not let them slow him down.
JAMES: “Whenever you start anything new, you don’t see the work. You don’t see the path. You don’t see the road ahead, and I just said right then and there: this would not be my story. I would not fail, and that I would figure this out. No matter what it took, no matter how long, fashion was going to be my calling.”
During the intervening years, he did not sit idle. He was determined to learn and work in the apparel world so that when his time came, his brand would be excellent. He earned a B.A. in Technical Science and Product Development, then went to F.I.T. for an A.S. in Menswear Design, all the while working retail and design jobs. After graduation he worked in mass marketing.
JAMES: “My mass-marketing streak was a nice tour; I did bottoms for a while. I did knit tops, graphic design, art direction, and I did denim. I did outerwear for a while, then senior level design where you combine those things–managing people and you fly out and try to set targets. Those experiences allow you to not just be able to do what you do in school (put together two outfits), but to put together a whole collection, a brand, and have it all have synergy. The difference is how it’s manufactured. You have to teach your manufacturers how you want it done – that’s what I learned in that process, which was really important.”
The store he has worked so hard to create is a special place; not just because of the journey he had to go through to get here, but for the welcoming and communal environment he has created.
JAMES: “One of the things I wanted, that I try to do here [at my store] is to bring the anxiety level down, and to allow people who might not otherwise participate in fashion understand that ‘it’s okay.’ We are not trying to change your whole thing- we are just trying to change how you view apparel, how you view yourself in it, and bring you things that make you feel comfortable and make you feel fashionable – we want to enhance them.”
In addition to paying careful attention to the clothing details, James is focused on the manufacturing process and the relationships involved. The brand is about more than making great clothing items, it’s about developing a work-meets-life community.
JAMES: “I really like working directly with the people who make my products. We laugh together, cry together, work through those things because, once again my experience in the mass-market industry was about emailing your ideas away. Whereas, if you were working directly with them, you can inspire them. When I walk in, I’ll say [to whomever is working on my project] ‘Hey, what’s up? You’re doing great.’ We can just enjoy the process. Then, when we get behind they can help save me, like when we made a guy’s pants a full size too big the other day and they re-cut it for me. They saved me, and back and forth it goes.”
KB: Do you make Bespoke garments? | JAMES: I don’t use the word bespoke that much. I just say ‘I am going to build you a garment.’ I think it’s a more manly, a more handsome term, and it keeps out all the panache. I get that it is a great buzzword right now. I don’t like snobby words. I built a brand that I really want to be inclusive, not exclusive, so I try to talk to people in a way that is common. One of the major precepts or major things that this business is about is being inclusive, so I prefer to say, ‘I’ll make you a custom garment’ or ‘I’ll build you something,’ and leave at that.”
KB: The By Robert James brand is Simple, Honest, Handsome. Can you TELL ME what that means? | JAMES: “SIMPLE means we try make apparel that is not rotted with a bunch of stuff you do not need. And it’s also simple since the way we do business is built on the fact that we do business here [in New York]. Part of what is really important to me is not what we do, but how we do it, which is one of the reasons why we do it local.
Our process helps shape the apparel itself instead of fighting against it and raising [the] price. You make things in ways that are a little bit more intuitive, and those simple details carry the design. The fact is that we will fit it for you, [alter it] if the sleeves are too long or you want it shorter or tighter. We are really focused on making a garment that is going to work for you, that you are going to be able to enjoy.”
“HONEST: We try to use mainly primary resourcing for what we find: a vintage garment or a photograph. The business practice in mass-market was to shop the market, bring back a bunch of stuff from other people’s collection, and then knock it off. I don’t do that. That doesn’t mean I might not have a garment that’s similar to something else out there, but where I found the original idea was from a primary resource.”
“HANDSOME: Paul Smith said, ‘We give classics a kick’ and I say we sort of give old garments a clean-up. Enhance them: [that’s] how I want my garments and goods to be at the end of the day making the man look like a man. Making him look handsome. My brand is about my original feelings, and being inclusive, to people. And, my favorite fashion experiences are new ones. So, when I find customers who come in and are real nervous, and having a hard time, I really like that experience [of working with them] because I find they will come back, and they will kind of change the way they feel, the way they look, and the way that they see themselves.”
James works in ways other than just helping men dress well. He participates and supports several charities because he believes he has more to give, and we all do too. He told me about the three charities closest to his heart.
JAMES: “Movember is a charity and the way they gain awareness is during the month of November, mo-bros and mo-sisters, especially mo-bros grow a mustache. So, if you are a guy who is normally clean shaven and all of a sudden you are growing a mustache, people will start to ask you ‘what’s that about’ and at the end of the day it is about prostate cancer and men’s health. We do a concert, charge admission, and the proceeds go to this cause. We also try to recruit brothers to grow a mustache and be apart of our team. Last year was the first time we participated. Worldwide, the organization [raises] around fifty million [dollars]. All of this money goes to Prostate Cancer Foundation (www.pcf.org) that promote men’s health and prostate cancer awareness in particular. This was our first charity.”
“We work with CMJ, the College Music Journal (www.cmj.com). This is New York City’s version of Austin City Limits, which are bands that are only half-way discovered that come and play a ton of shows. Last year, our show was the closing act for a band who had played 17 other shows with bands such as Caveman.”
“The third charity we work with is GreenPop (www.greenpop.org). [My wife and I] took our honeymoon to South Africa, and we went to a music festival called The Creek. There were girls [at the festival] who began to strum, one a little ukulele, another on a stand up base, and there was also a xylophone and a fiddle. They began to quietly sing, not necessarily trying to call attention to themselves, but we were right next to them so we couldn’t help but ask ‘What’s going on?’ Their vibe and the way they were delivering the music was very unpretentious and sweet. I was taken aback and then, they began to minister to us about why they were there. They told us they were there to bring awareness of GreenPop, an organization with a goal to plant 5,000 trees in Africa. [Hearing this] I began to weep, which is kinda what I do; music makes me cry if its really great, and then when I get touched, it [becomes] really emotional for me.
I felt the passion of these girls, and I said to them, ‘I am a New Yorker; I believe we have enough people that if I can get awareness we can purchase 100 trees.’ I was getting ready to buy them all and my wife said, ‘what are you doing?’ So, I ended up buying two or three trees on the spot. Once I got back [to New York], I reached out to them and told them this is what we will do: we will have a party for you guys, and I made my fall campaign based around my trip and around GreenPop. So, I purchased 100 of the tree cards. They sent them and I would sell them for no profit. Then, we had our event and ended up raising another $1500-$2000 dollars. So, we got to purchase our trees plus a little bit more, and we are continuing to stay in touch and cheer them on because now we see our trees being planted and we see the impact of what’s going on.”
James’ involvement is not limited to non-profit charities that deal with issues close to his heart. He has dreams to help the community, starting on the individual level to help people become environmentally conscious. He wants to try and reduce the carbon footprint for each person to zero. He has plans for an online interface network that would make tracking usage effortless. His reasoning is “if individuals make a move, it’s even more powerful than when the big guys do it, and I think it would be a great way for some of the money we waste to go to good use in another place for people who can’t help themselves.”
JAMES: “It’s been a wonderful thing [working with charities], and I think that which is the most powerful and the most important part is that as a young artist, seeing my small community grow. I want to inform them about something much more important than trousers, jackets and shirts. I love what I do. I get a lot out of it. I enjoy it absolutely to the nth degree. However, there is a big world out there and sometimes the arts become the bad men, especially in this world of fashion art. What I think is also important for the arts to do, besides make the world around them more beautiful, is create artifacts to tell about our time, [items which] can be looked back upon and frame [our generation]. The other thing that is really important is once that eye becomes fixed on you, if you can remove the eye to something that is of much larger importance to the world. I kinda believe that our greatest goal is to participate in some of those higher callings; things that are more important than what pants you wear.
People have lost meaning and purpose because we think we can buy it, and you can’t. You really have to do the work and have a conscience.
So, that’s why I got involved in those things. That’s why I seek out these things. That’s why, right now, we are going to figure if there is something I can do to help out. To give common people a chance to go live their lives for a moment, not being in the hell that they live in but having an opportunity to rejoice and enjoy. Now I want to look at that, and you know, I don’t have a lot here either. [My brand] is four years old and just starting out but as I grow in this business it will be more than a place to come and find out about fashion. This will be a place that promotes community, both here and in a larger sense, the world’s community. So, that’s what we do, and that’s why we do it.”